Burgers, burgers, everywhere, quality burgers. Sliderbar, Umami Burger, Local Union 271 and now Wahlburgers -- and I'm just talking about University Avenue in Palo Alto. There are a dozen more options throughout the city, and the East Coast's high-profile Shake Shack will be opening in Stanford Shopping Center this fall. The better burger wars are heating up in Palo Alto.
To survive, it takes more than just a tasty burger with quality beef, a delicious bun, a ton of condiments and smiling employees. It takes a strategy, a way of differentiating your burgers from all the rest. Wahlburgers, which opened on University Avenue in November, has several unique approaches.
The burger emporium is owned by Hollywood star Mark Wahlberg and his brothers Donnie and Paul, who is the chef and driving force behind the operation. Wahlburgers has a eponymous reality television show on the A&E network offering a behind-the-scenes look at running a burger chain. Apparently, fame has its advantages.
Recently, Boston-based Wahlburgers, with fewer than two dozen outlets nationwide, signed an agreement with five franchise groups that will increase the number of locations to nearly 120 over the next five years.
Locally, the Palo Alto Wahlburgers is a franchise. Gregg Harp, director of operations for the franchise group, said they will be building eight Wahlburgers around northern California in the near future. The next one will open this fall at Pier 39 in San Francisco.
The most apparent operational strategy is having a liquor license. The restaurant itself is divided into three distinct sections: a sit-down dining area, counter service/take out and the full-service bar area for more leisurely imbibing and eating.
The menu is packed full of sandwich choices, mostly burgers, but other options include hot dogs, a banh mi sandwich, salads, macaroni and cheese and chili.
The food was across-the-board good. The burgers were fat and juicy, fried foods crackling and not greasy, and salads were fresh and crisp. My only complaint was the overuse of paper products. In the sit-down dining section, orders were served on paper-lined plastic baskets and beverages in paper cups. Ten feet away in the bar area, beverages were served in glass. I expected something a little more refined. Service, though, was excellent.
The "Melt" ($10.50), a one-third-pound burger, was served between thick-cut bread and grilled with American cheese, bacon, caramelized onions, homemade pickles and mustard sauce. The bread was toasted crunchy on the outside and did not fall apart mid meal -- the markers of a great patty melt.
The "Our Burger" ($9.25) was another one-third pound beef patty, with lettuce, tomato, American cheese, homemade pickles and a special (proprietary) Wahl house sauce. For a basic burger, it was fundamentally good.
An unusual and tasty offering was the Thanksgiving Day sandwich ($9.50) a fresh-ground turkey burger with stuffing, mayo, cranberry-orange sauce and roasted butternut squash. I was doubtful, but it worked.
Jenn's chicken sandwich ($9.50) came with seared chicken breast, both caramelized and crisped onions, lettuce and honey-garlic mayo. It was the least exciting offering. The sandwich would have been tastier had the chicken been fried.
The crispy haddock sandwich ($9.50), breaded with seasoned panko breadcrumbs, lettuce, tomato and a balsamic tartar sauce, was one of the best fish sandwiches around.
Sides, all $4, included Yukon Gold fries, sweet potato tots, tater tots and crispy onion rings. The thin onion rings were piled high and not greasy. The crispy tater tots were the best of the fried potatoes, and because they were denser than the fries, they stayed warmer longer.
Not made in-house was the plant-based Impossible Burger ($12.95), a 4-ounce patty with smoked cheddar, lettuce, caramelized onions, chili, spicy tomatoes and special house sauce.
Much has been written about the Impossible Burger, which is made from coconut oil, extracts of soy roots, wheat and potato proteins, soy proteins and yeasts. The resultant burger looks, feels, and tastes like a real burger. In fact, a vegan friend of mine doesn't like the Impossible Burger because, she said, it tastes like beef.
For beverages, Wahlburgers offers everything from frappes (New England's take on the milkshake) and floats to wine, beer and specialty cocktails from the full bar. Yes, there is a children's menu.
Despite the Hollywood pizzazz that accompanies the Wahlburgers and its owners, the food was high-quality and well-prepared. While the better burger wars heat up, Wahlburgers seems well positioned to meet the challengers.
185 University Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: full bar
Happy hour: no
Outdoor dining: no
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: very good